Spying on the Bomb

The world changed decisively in August, 1945, when the explosion of two nuclear bombs over wartime Japan resulted in over 200,000 deaths (with a like number to follow from delayed effects) and pressed the war-hardened Japanese nation to sue for peace. The stakes of nuclear war increased dramatically again when hydrogen bombs tested by the United States in 1952 and by the Soviet Union in 1953 demonstrated far greater explosive power. From the beginning of its bomb project, the American intelligence community expressed great concern that U.S. nuclear development would be subject to espionage by both the declared enemy, Germany, and a U.S. ally, the Soviet Union, resulting in an enemy nation being the first to complete the bomb.

In Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, Jeffrey T. Richelson recounts the history of the American effort to monitor the development of nuclear weapons by friendly and unfriendly nations. This is a richly annotated book, with more than one hundred pages of notes, all to unclassified sources, many of which were obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act. Very dense in information, the book is not easy reading. The reader must wade through numerous acronyms for the defense and intelligence agencies of a dozen or more countries (which, however, are summarized in a three-page table at the end). Readers not expert in recent political and military history might wish for more chronological landmarks (there is no entry for Hiroshima in the index, for example) or a time line. On the other hand, anyone researching nuclear diplomacy in the late twentieth century will find this work an indispensable starting place.

An atomic weapons program is a major undertaking for any nation, one that, in principle, should be difficult to hide. While the technology to detect nuclear programs has improved markedly with the introduction of spy satellites, seismic networks, and techniques for isotopic sampling, the development and widespread installation of nuclear power plants has made it far more difficult to distinguish military from civilian programs.

One of Richelson’s main points is that human intelligence, particularly that of participants in bomb development, can be essential to determining the status of any nation’s nuclear arms program. Atomic bombs require a critical mass of plutonium (as used on Hiroshima) or uranium (as tested at the “Trinity” site and used at Nagasaki). For the latter, a massive quantity of uranium ore must be procured and the uranium extracted and enriched in the uranium-235 isotope by a number of methods, each of which requires highly specialized equipment. With the spread of nuclear reactors for energy production, there is the possibility that some of the uranium extracted for fuel use could be further refined to “weapons grade” uranium. Plutonium is a synthetic element which must be made in a nuclear reactor. The possibility of reactors being diverted from civilian use must be considered, as well as the feasibility of extracting plutonium from spent fuel rods to make a plutonium bomb.

Although atomic testing is notoriously hard to hide, as are preparations for building or testing a weapon, the evidence gathered by technical means can be less than conclusive. Preparations for a test can be detected by surveillance over-flights and by satellite photography. Short-lived isotopes can be scooped up from the atmosphere in the days and weeks following a test, and vibrations produced in any detonation will be monitored by seismographs around the world. A nuclear explosion has a characteristic optical signature, or pattern of light emission, as well; methods of finding an acoustic “signature” have been proven effective even in deep ocean or high in the atmosphere.

In his book, Richelson recounts oft-told tales of American attempts to gauge the status of German efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and real and imagined Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project. Interestingly, the Germans did not take seriously the possibility of the American bomb, even though they might have been tipped off by the disappearance of leading physicists from their universities. During this period, several highly dramatic scenarios unfolded, such as that of Moe Berg, an armed American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agent, who attended a physics seminar by Werner Heisenberg in neutral Switzerland prepared to shoot Heisenberg dead on the spot if it appeared that Germany was making progress on a bomb.

At Los Alamos, the British national Klaus Fuchs and a number of other Soviet agents spied for Joseph...

(The entire section is 1910 words.)